#FrugalFebruary – What we can all learn from The Overspent American


If you haven’t read The Overspent American: Why We Want What We Don’t Need by Juliet Schor, then I would encourage you to add it to your ‘must read’ list.

Written towards the end of the 1990’s, Schor’s message is as true today as it was in the days before the global financial crisis. If you’re looking to simplify your life, the messages from this important book may resonate with you (as they did with me). I just wish I’d read it before.

In today’s post, I share some of the key tenets of Schor’s persuasive manifesto in the hope that they will help you on your journey towards a more meaningful life with less. In particular, I’d suggest that these are messages we’ll want to teach our kids so let me know if they resonated with you.

Beware ‘prosperous referents’

We’re all aware of the idea of ‘keeping up with the Joneses’. In the case of our kids, for Joneses read ‘Kardashian’ (and consider the title of that celebrity family’s television show) and ‘Made in Chelsea’. Schor takes this notion further, describing the impact of widespread ‘upscale competitive consumption’ on individuals and society as a whole.

Schor suggests that we are now exposed to a much broader range of ‘referents’ (points of social and cultural comparison) than ever before. It’s hard not to compare ourselves to those we see on social media, on the television, at the office or in our neighbourhood.

We see others remodelling their kitchens and want to do it, too. We observe colleagues with the latest gadgets or we look on enviously as siblings book foreign holidays.

Yet, the truth is this: everyone’s finances are unique. If we aspire to buy what others have, we may find ourselves enmeshed in what Schor calls ‘a cycle of work-and-spend’.

Upscaling has undermined saving

There’s absolutely nothing wrong in striving to achieve [and save for] what we want in life, but remember this:

upscaling has undermined saving

When the urge to own what others becomes overwhelming, we find ourselves stretching budgets (or taking on debt) to pay for things that we don’t actually need.

We all need an emergency fund for when the washing machine breaks down or the fence blows over. Do we all have one?

Consider Schor’s manifesto

Here’s my 2017 take on Schor’s plan, which is aimed at both individuals and society. What do you make of these action points? Can you apply any of them to your own life? What would you advise your kids, especially teens for whom independence and adulthood is not so far away?

Control desire

Unsubscribe from email marketing. We can all do this individually or use a service such as Unroll.me. Recycle catalogues that land on your doormat.

If you do purchase something, buy the best quality you can afford so that it lasts. When own something lovely that adds value to your life, you stop looking.

Make exclusivity uncool

Consider what a difference it would make if conspicuous consumption were frowned upon, exposing competitive spending for what it really is.

So, be prepared to stand out from the crowd. Set spending limits.

This can be particularly helpful when it comes to dealing with children. By deciding to hold just a modest birthday party, for example, other parents may thank you for taking the pressure off.

For teenagers, try establishing a monthly allowance. When it’s gone, it’s gone. There’s no borrowing from next month. This approach helps teens enormously; it helps them see that exclusivity is uncool when a single purchase can blow their budget and prevent them from using their allowance to enjoy experiences.

Embrace the sharing economy

Educate yourself about the brands you love. Consider the provenance of their products (about which there may not be a great deal of information). To what extent do the values of your favourite brands truly align with yours? Do you really need to buy a product with a label (when you will, in effect, become a walking advertisement)?

To build on this theme, become ‘ad-aware’ and more alert to the possibility that we are surrounded by subliminal messages encouraging us to buy.

Even better, find ways to share, rather than to own. Tool libraries are now emerging, but I’d wager there are many more things we could share in our communities.

For example, I think a ‘Spice Sharing Collective’ would be a fabulous way to have access to a range of unusual herbs and spices that you’d otherwise hesitate buying. Local friends, don’t go out and buy Fenugreek; come and get a teaspoon from me!

Avoid retail therapy

Spending, which can be addictive, may be a substitute for other activities or needs. The idea of shopping as therapy can make a situation worse, as debt and guilt add to the feelings that ‘retail therapy’ was designed to eliminate.

De-commercialise the rituals

See if you can avoid every holiday, festival or celebration becoming a shopping spree. Instead, discover the histories of the holidays you celebrate. If a particular ritual involves gifting, consider making something yourself.

Make Time

If you outsource, you buy time but have to earn to pay for it. That doesn’t really make sense. Consider how much ‘life energy‘ you’d have to expend just to pay someone else for a particular service.

Doing something the slow way is definitely cheaper and may be more eco-friendly, even if it takes more time. It may also bring you closer to those in your community, which is good for them and for you.

Break the work-and-spend cycle

Here’s where Schor addresses society as a whole, including those who can legislate for change.

If we tax larger vehicles, as we do in the UK, that may nudge us towards a different choice.
Likewise, the larger the home, the higher the domestic property tax.

Maybe these types of governmental controls will cause us, consumers, to consider if what we already have may actually be enough thus breaking the ‘work-and-spend’ cycle of consumption.

Mitigate the factors that lead to competitive spending

Here’s another one for government. What would happen if advertisements were no longer subsidised? Is more always better?

If, as consumers, we stopped believing the marketers who persuade us that buying a particular product could fill a heart void/help us look younger/slimmer, make us happier, we may be able to break the pattern of competitive spending. Keeping up with the Joneses would become a thing of the past.

Beyond a certain point, more stuff doesn’t equal more happiness

I think we all know this deep down, but a reminder now and again is no bad thing.

More stuff doesn’t make us happier. In fact, we know that more stuff equals more misery, more stress, more distraction, more debt.

A turning tide?

Schor concludes with a desire for balance, proposing ‘a decently functioning economy coexisting with a decent cultural and daily life experience’.

Almost 20 years on from the first publication of this influential book, I’d like to think that the tide is turning. I’d like to believe that this balance is achievable. A growing interest in minimalism and simple living makes me hope that it is.


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10 thoughts on “#FrugalFebruary – What we can all learn from The Overspent American

  1. I’ll look this book up in the library, thanks for the recommendation. The 80’s and 90’s produced some great simple living and anti-consumerism films and books, but it all went to hell again in the noughties up until the crash. I think the tide isn’t so much turning, as diverging. People I know are headed off in one of two directions – the simple life or the materialist one. For every person I know who is downshifting, I know someone taking on a larger mortgage, longer hours or more debt.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Americans are just as sick of the Kardashians as the rest of the world, for the record. Famous for the sake of being famous. Great points here. Part of me wants to start a borrowing library or a bulk food store, but that would be a lot to take on. Simplify, simplify, simplify.

    Liked by 1 person

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